Oct 25, 2011

Notes on A Serious Man


I’ve always believed that the good things in life come to us at particular moments when we most need them or are most ready for them. The best books, the best music, the best people – none of it is random; it has a sacred significance which perhaps reveals itself much later when you’re able to connect the dots. With these thoughts it’s a lil difficult to write about a film that is basically about randomness; about a hapless soul’s search for meaning in a universe that will do anything to strip every object, every individual, every event of meaning. To search for meaning in such an existential, absurd universe is akin to the endless wait for Godot. 
A Serious Man tells the story of physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose world is slowly disintegrating. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a someone who is little more than a lecherous pontificating creep; to add insult to injury she wants Sy to move in and Larry to stay at the Jolly Roger; his overweight, mentally-challenged brother Albert (Richard Kind) sits on the couch all day and attracts the attention of the local police; his son Danny is doing drugs and owes money, while his daughter wants a nose job. Typical cozy picture of dysfunctional American suburbia, huh?

Every scene is treated with the Cohen brothers’ trademark irreverence and humour. Be it Danny’s bar mitzvah, or the encounters between Larry and the rabbis who he meets to try and understand why he’s being singled out for such treatment. The thing abt the Cohen brothers is that they, apart from Woody Allen in parts, are the only guys who can show you a film abt a man losing everything or a bizarre murderous psychopath and yet make you laugh. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable laughter, one which is accompanied by the feather-touch awareness along your spine that you wouldn’t want to inhabit the universe he’s describing, but the laughter is there. You laugh even as you feel sorry for Larry. I could particularly empathise with Larry’s puzzlement when a long & circuitous conversation with a senior rabbi ends with the devastating words, “We can’t know everything.” No wonder he retorts, “Sounds like you don’t know anything.”

Though this film was made after their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men (NCFOM), I’d like to see this as a prelude to that story of relentless, needless violence where the flip of a coin decides a man’s fate (the coin flip scene in NCFOM is one of the best scenes in film history ever.) The usual rules, promises and tokens are rendered hollow and ludicrous in these films. Why so many people die in NCFOM while the sheriff survives in that other great Cohen brothers’ film - Fargo - can all be attributed to their singular vision of this existential universe where everything is accidental.

I’m sure we are all disturbed by randomness, by chance, by events unfolding one way or the other because a coin flip changed the direction of our lives. We’ve always been led to believe that this isn’t so – that we shape our destinies, that no wrong ever goes unpunished, blah blah. It is to the Cohen brothers’ credit that their nihilism is appealing. I can even say I find it oddly comforting sometimes – just fuck the universe and do what needs to be done.

But while Larry is a victim, there is something profoundly moving about the manner in which he struggles to lead his life even as it’s coming apart at the seams. He just does what needs to be done, doesn’t crib or moan, seeks wisdom from those he supposes can help him and goes abt his way. And when all fails, he claims quietly, “I’ve tried to be a serious man, I’ve tried to do right.”

A Serious Man begins with a prologue in which a married woman stabs an elderly man whom she believes to be a dybbuk (malicious spirit who enters a living person and controls their life.) The story bears no relation to the main story which follows. To look for a connection is as absurd as Larry’s attempts to rationalise his predicament. That’s the singular beauty of this film: nothing is ever proved, nothing confirmed and no solace offered. There’s no way of knowing: the film is full of characters who talk about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, whether or not actions have consequences, and the need to “accept the mystery”. And so we go on about our sorry lives – na├»ve, unsuspecting, unprepared, fearful.

In the end I was left with just one thought – we are angry when we can’t find the reasons, but perchance we found the reasons, would grief have been any less?

Oct 1, 2011

On the canyon

Los Angeles is much like Mumbai, a city of contrasts, where showbiz and glamour exist alongside illegal mexican  workers, where the seediness of the city's underbelly is only matched by that found inside the homes of big stars and studio executives. To find a house in this urban jungle that one could look forward to returning to at the end of a long day, was a prize fit for the kings.

The house was a simple split structure, with creme exteriors and dark pinewood. The living room, kitchen and study covered the bottom floor, while the top floor housed the 2 bedrooms and a hanging patio. It's beauty was its location. To come to it, you'd have to take the  long, winding road that hugged Mullholland drive, its  narrow streets curving along a world of corvettes and mustangs and people who sunbathed in the Bahamas. The road eventually gave way to a deep gorge that stood like a huge bowl amid the gorgeous mountains of LA.

It was a small house that stood on the lip of the canyon which he shared with the red-tailed eagles, coyotes, deer, skunks, possums and rattlesnakes. Frankly, he minded the skunk far more than the rattlesnake. More rural than possible in LA, coming home always felt like healing, a place of refuge where he could forget for a few hours the unnaturalness, the sickness that marked his daily life.

His favourite place in the house was the deck - he had invested nearly as much in it as people did in the best master bedrooms. It had a Braun barbecue grill, the floor a deep reddish wood which was 100% stain free, the best Yamo sound-deck was fitted over the small bamboo cane chair that hung on the western side of the deck. To stand at the deck and watch the sun going down behind the mountains, was a sight to die for; to stand by it at night and hear the animals in the canyon below perk up for their nocturnal activities, was to understand habit and ritual; to practice his yoga on its polished wooden surface as the sun broke out at 7 am in the summers, made it easier to bear the loneliness that was now his life.

Today was not an easy day. To even imagine that he'd made such a big error which had led to the tragedy, was a nightmare that he wouldn't wish on anyone. He took a bottle of Budweiser out of the fridge and stood sipping it at the deck. A coyote cried out into the distance and something rustled in the shrubs below. Must be dinner time. His stomach rumbled and he remembered he'd not eaten anything since breakfast. He was still standing at the deck listening to the winds rustling the tree tops when the phone rang, and her quiet voice came on the speaker phone from 2000 miles away.

He immediately felt better, felt at peace.

Is this my favourite policeman?

Hi, how're you doing?

I know you're not doing so fine. Talk to me. Sunny called.

Sunny called you?

He said you could use some kick-ass conversation.

Silence.

Now will you tell me about the victims or will you?

There wasn't much he could deny her anyway; he told her the whole sordid story.

Listen to me. Are you listening?

Yes.

Even if the worst is true, what happened is not your fault. You acted on the evidence, you were only doing your job. And no one does it better than you. ok? If this terrible thing is true, do you know what you will do?

He nodded but didn't answer.

You will man up and do what needs to be done now. You will get to the bottom of this. I will personally fly out and hold you? Dyu hear me?

You're holding me now, baby.

I'm not finished. Have you been drinking?

I miss you.

Shuttup and listen. I want you to listen to me.

I'm listening.
He was hanging on to her every word.

Now, gimme an Adam Sandler dialogue.

C'mon! Not now.

She raised her voice.
Say something funny!

Something funny.

Bad one. Try again.
She snorted.

I love you.

Only as a friend. ok?

Can't I see you?
He prayed silently.

We've been over this before. I will always be your best friend. I need to run now. Call me.

Call you what?

She smiled, he knew from 2000 miles away that she was smiling. Then her voice came on again - as soft and gentle as always.

You are the best. Dont you ever forget that. Dont you ever let me down. Bye.

****